Today's Papers

North Dakota Is the Place To Be

Yesterday’s monthly report from the U.S. Labor Department is the big news in today’s papers: The nation’s employers cut 533,000 jobs in November, the largest monthly job-shedding since 1974. Congressional Democrats are near a deal with the White House to help out the flagging auto industry with the goal of preventing even nastier unemployment numbers.

The New York Times notes high up in its lead story that the bad numbers do not include people who are underemployed or who have simply stopped looking for work. Counting those folks would nearly double the November unemployment tally, putting it at 12.5 percent instead of 6.7 percent. President-elect Barack Obama called for public spending to solve the crisis, but the Times says Obama’s vague plan to create 2.5 million jobs would “barely recover the jobs that have disappeared over the last year,” given the accelerating losses.

The Wall Street Journal points out that the 1.9 million jobs so far lost in 2008 makes the current recession the worst downturn since the years following World War II. The government revised down its data for the previous two months, and the WSJ says could do the same for November, which could leave us with a final figure even worse than the 602,000 jobs shed in December 1974 (though the paper provides perspective, noting that because the 2008 economy is 75 percent larger than its 1974 counterpart, today’s bad numbers are less dramatic).

The Washington Post highlights the low price of oil and high number of homeowners behind on mortgage payments or in foreclosure—10 percent. Some predict unemployment will rise to 10 percent as well by the end of 2009. The situation is “unraveling so fast as to deny analysis by the usual statistical models,” says the Post. The paper points out what colorful language economists are using to describe the situation, including such terms as “god-awful” and “indescribably terrible.”

Even small businesses are firing people, which the Los Angeles Times says is a particularly bad sign because small businesses typically hang on to their trained workers in anticipation of better times. The Times finds husband-and-wife owners of two heating and air-conditioning firms who fired their own daughter two weeks before her wedding.

Congressional Democrats are nearing a compromise with the White House to provide loans to the flagging Big Three companies of the U.S. auto industry. The WP reports that in talks with the president’s chief of staff, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dropped her opposition to tapping an existing program for funding fuel-efficient car development to provide the loans. The NYT says congressional Republicans and concern about massive default risk could still sabotage the deal. The WSJ reports that Chrysler has hired a bankruptcy firm.

Enough gloom—let’s turn our attention toward sunny North Dakota, where, according to a Page One NYT story, everything is just fine. In North Dakota, auto sales are up, unemployment is down, foreclosures are few, and the budget is in surplus. Why are things so great in North Dakota? Partly because of surging oil production and a good farming year, but also because of a “never-fancy culture that has nurtured fewer sudden booms of wealth.” In other words, “Our banks don’t do those goofy loans,” as the co-owner of a local car dealership puts it.  

The WP fronts a four-pager on the tricky question of what to do with the thousands of prisoners held in Iraq by the U.S. military. The recently-approved security pact between the Iraqi and U.S. governments calls for all 16,000 prisoners to be released or referred to courts. The story describes a tribunal of U.S. servicemen who decide not whether a detainee is guilty or innocent but whether the person would be dangerous if released. The Post reports that the military has at least made a significant effort to improve the conditions of its prisons.

Evil geeks are winning a global cyber war and malicious software is spreading faster than ever, according to a front-page piece in the NYT. Hackers thrive in foreign countries with little interest in prosecuting cyber misdeeds, and so cyber criminals raise an army of remotely-controlled zombie computers to send penis-enlargement e-mails and stealthily steal your money. Some fear an erosion of confidence in the foundation of 21st-century commerce.

Only the LAT fronts a story on the sentencing of O.J. Simpson to up to 33 years in prison for his attempt to rob a pair of memorabilia dealers. Simpson surprised even the judge by apologizing and getting misty-eyed in a pre-sentencing statement.

Greeting-card companies, their fingers ever on the pulse of the American psyche, are muting the tone of holiday cards this year. The WSJ reports that one company sensed waning consumer confidence and started toning down its cards months before the housing bubble burst. According to card salesmen, people want more sentimentality, fewer garish colors, and still fewer symbols of gross consumerism. The businesslike language industry insiders use to describe their calculations—”Santa is a true, traditional red, instead of the cherry red we’ve used in the past”—makes the story a must-read.